Why We Don’t Understand the Democratic Debates

When political candidates resort to jargon, it becomes more difficult to figure out the nuances in their policies.


Abby Hofstetter, Opinion Editor

I get excited to watch the Democratic debates. I’m not totally sure why; nothing very exciting ever really happens unless it’s orchestrated by a moderator, which makes it less organic, which in turn makes it less exciting. But I’ve still cleared my schedule every night that the candidates have been onstage, and I’ve still sat cross-legged in front of my laptop, watching Anderson Cooper count down the seconds until the night begins. I sat with anticipation watching CNN’s live Democratic debate draw as the news anchor told me, Effie Trinket-style, that Kirsten Gillibrand would face off against Bill de Blasio on July 31. I have the third round of debates noted in my color-coded calendar in blue ink. But as excited as I — and the rest of the nation — get for the debates, I never really feel satisfied when they’re over.

I’ll admit it: I don’t know how healthcare works. I’m lucky enough to be covered by my parents’ insurance, and I pray that I’ll have a job that gives me adequate healthcare by the time I turn 26. I’m a history major; my studies don’t help me understand what’s happening on the debate stage, especially since no debate has spent a significant amount of time discussing foreign policy. In fact, unless I was studying politics, law or public policy, I’d be almost guaranteed to be confused for the majority of the debates. And it seems like that’s intentional.

Political jargon is just as catchy as it is restrictive. The average citizen doesn’t understand the ins and outs of the law; aside from lawyers, law enforcement and (hopefully) politicians, nobody really does. But no one on the debate stage explains their phrasing or their policies, and rarely does anyone offstage explain them either. Instead, we watch the candidates argue over whether they’d treat crossing the border as a civil or a criminal offense, and whether “Medicare for All” should mean Medicare for all, and whether or not they’d support a 1970s busing policy. The only time they speak in simple terms is either when they discuss the sitting president (Trump has an office that needs to be bleached) or their marginalized relatives (like Amy Klobuchar’s Uncle Dick, who runs a deer stand).

The candidates seem aware that their language isn’t quite understandable, since when they slip into their catchphrases, they revert back to colloquialisms. But as soon as the moderators try to discuss policy, the jargon returns. We hear about Section 1325 and Universal Basic Income, and we’re expected to know what these terms mean — not only on a basic level, but in such depth that we can understand the debate around them. But I don’t.

Although I don’t like to consider myself an uninformed voter, I am. I get caught up in slogans and the bright promises made on debate stages. Almost everyone onstage supports the same basic policies — common-sense gun control is a necessity, the current administration’s treatment of immigrants is inhumane, universal healthcare should be implemented — but where they differ is where they confuse us.

An uninformed voter is, perhaps, what a politician wants most. By wrapping us up in jargon and legalese and technicalities, candidates distract us from the uglier details of their policies and keep us focused on what they want us to see. Andrew Yang wants to give $1,000 to every citizen every month, but he wants to give only $1,000 to every citizen every month, even if some citizens — like lower-income families —  need more than that to survive. Pete Buttigieg says he’s in favor of closing the pay gap, but his policy only encompasses pay transparency, not pay equality. It’s not that the candidates aren’t honest, it’s that they’re misleading. We can only find answers once we know that we have to look for them.

Some, like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vox News, have taken note of this phenomenon and gone out of their way to improve political literacy. Ocasio-Cortez has been praised for using colloquial language during congressional hearings (the most-viewed political video on Twitter is one of the congresswoman explaining U.S. finance laws, and exactly how it‘s “super legal” for a politician to be a “pretty bad guy”). Likewise, Vox’s Netflix series “Explained” touches upon a host of subjects ranging from punctuation to the racial wealth gap, and delves into the nuances behind all of these complex issues without ever using unexplained jargon. Vox also continues to explain complex matters with simple terms in their articles, which often serve as a resource to help with answering questions that many can be afraid to ask.

But this isn’t enough; an individual can’t be expected to know when they’re uninformed. We need comprehensive political education for all voters, and we need clarity from our candidates. We need the moderators of our debates to ask candidates about the specifics of their policies instead of pitting them against each other for ratings, and we need moderators to push further when candidates evade their questions. We need the debates to be conducted in words and language that we can all understand. Until we’re all informed voters, can the 2020 election be considered fair?

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, print edition. Email Abby Hofstetter at [email protected]